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The Literary Essays of James Russell Lowell!

By (November 22, 2015) No Comment

literary essays of jrlOur books today are the literary essays of that great 19th-century American belletrist James Russell Lowell, here in a lovely uniform green edition of four volumes put out in 1890 by Houghton, Mifflin in conjunction with The Riverside Press of Lowell’s home of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I found these volumes, predictably enough, at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, lined up on the $1 outdoor bargain carts, and my guess would be that they never actually travelled any great distance in their lifetime before ending up there. My guess would be that their original owner got them from a bookshop somewhere on Tremont Street, maybe put them on a shelf where they remained untouched for decades (these volume I bought are essentially new), then maybe went to a descendent’s library and sat similarly untouched, and then got sold to the Brattle and turned up on the cheapest bargain carts, a mere ten feet from the Dumpster where the balky books end up if they sit on the bargain carts too long.

I was happy to find these green books, of course (my copy of one volume of Lowell is quite old and just a bit falling apart), although in that first moment I was also a bit sad as well, since in a perfect bookish-work, the writings of James Russell Lowell wouldn’t end up teetering on the edge of bargain oblivion. In his own day, Lowell was a famous poet, a public crusader for his favorite causes, an arbiter of literary taste, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a diplomat and sought-after lecturer, and most of all a much-read and jrl1much-discussed essayist; whenever I see dusty old works by 19th century intellectuals going a-begging at places like the Brattle, I feel a little pang for reading opportunities wasted (which is one of the reasons why I’ve written at such length about so many of them over the years). Re-reading these volumes has brought me evenings and evenings of joy, and I’d hate to think I’m hogging all that joy to myself.

The contents of these volumes are drawn from books Lowell brought out during his working life, from masterful collections like Among My Books, My Study Windows, and Fireside Travels. They span the whole breadth of one remarkable bookworm’s lifetime of omnivorous reading, and there’s something here to answer virtually any roving curiosity. For instance, one of the days I re-read one of these volumes I’d earlier re-read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, about the mania of the Salem Witch Trials, and I came across Lowell’s great piece on witchcraft, in which at one point he muses on the urge everybody feels to give in to the same kind of abandon the girls in Salem felt:

Who has never felt an almost irresistible temptation, and seemingly not self-originated, to let himself go? To let his mind gallop and kick and curvet and roll like a horse turned loose? In short, as we Yankees say, “to speak out in meeting?” Who never had it suggested to him by the fiend to break in at a funeral with a real character of the deceased, instead of that Mrs. Grundyfied view of him which the clergyman is so painfully elaborating in his prayer? Remove the pendulum of conventional routine, and the mental machinery runs on with a whir that gives a delightful excitement to the sluggish temperaments, and is, perhaps, the natural relief of the highly nervous organizations.

jrl2And of course the highlights of these collections reliably happen when Lowell is writing about the handful of authors he dearly, personally loves. On the very shortest of short lists of those authors was Dante, and the Dante essay here is superbly conversational and immediate:

Whatever subsidiary interpretations the poem is capable of, its great and primary value is as the autobiography of a human soul, of yours and mine, it may be, as well as Dante’s. In that lie its profound meaning and its permanent force. That an exile, a proud man forced to be dependent, should have found some consolation in brooding over the justice of God, weighed in such different scales from those of man, in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonderful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding the wrath of God sweeter than his mercy. But it is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own life he should have built this three-arched bridge, still firm against the wash and wear of ages …

And reading these books during the warmest November in recorded Boston history, I jrl3couldn’t help but detect the light lilt of irony in Lowell’s wonderful essay “A Good Word for Winter”:

I think the old fellow has hitherto had scant justice done him in the main. We make him the symbol of old age and death, and we think we have settled the matter. As if old age were never kindly as well as frosty; as if it had no reverend graces of its own as good in their way as the noisy impertinence of childhood, the elbowing self-conceit of youth, or the pompous mediocrity of middle life! As if there were anything discreditable in death, or nobody had ever longed for it!

James Russel Lowell is well and truly out of print – no annotated Penguin Classic of The Biglow Papers, no two-volume Library of America set (containing these very same literary essays) commemorating a man who did so much to lend legitimacy to the American lucy reads jrlrhetorical stance on the world stage (I don’t at the moment remember how many volumes Kurt Vonnegut has). You can find him on the mighty Project Gutenberg, for convenient reading everywhere you go, but if you want to curl up with Lowell on the printed page, you’ve got to haunt a place like the Brattle Bookshop and hope to find a set like this one. It seems like shabby treatment to me, but I’m probably not impartial at this point.

Home » stevereads

The Literary Essays of James Russell Lowell!

By (November 22, 2015) No Comment

literary essays of jrlOur books today are the literary essays of that great 19th-century American belletrist James Russell Lowell, here in a lovely uniform green edition of four volumes put out in 1890 by Houghton, Mifflin in conjunction with The Riverside Press of Lowell’s home of Cambridge, Massachusetts. I found these volumes, predictably enough, at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, lined up on the $1 outdoor bargain carts, and my guess would be that they never actually travelled any great distance in their lifetime before ending up there. My guess would be that their original owner got them from a bookshop somewhere on Tremont Street, maybe put them on a shelf where they remained untouched for decades (these volume I bought are essentially new), then maybe went to a descendent’s library and sat similarly untouched, and then got sold to the Brattle and turned up on the cheapest bargain carts, a mere ten feet from the Dumpster where the balky books end up if they sit on the bargain carts too long.

I was happy to find these green books, of course (my copy of one volume of Lowell is quite old and just a bit falling apart), although in that first moment I was also a bit sad as well, since in a perfect bookish-work, the writings of James Russell Lowell wouldn’t end up teetering on the edge of bargain oblivion. In his own day, Lowell was a famous poet, a public crusader for his favorite causes, an arbiter of literary taste, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, a diplomat and sought-after lecturer, and most of all a much-read and jrl1much-discussed essayist; whenever I see dusty old works by 19th century intellectuals going a-begging at places like the Brattle, I feel a little pang for reading opportunities wasted (which is one of the reasons why I’ve written at such length about so many of them over the years). Re-reading these volumes has brought me evenings and evenings of joy, and I’d hate to think I’m hogging all that joy to myself.

The contents of these volumes are drawn from books Lowell brought out during his working life, from masterful collections like Among My Books, My Study Windows, and Fireside Travels. They span the whole breadth of one remarkable bookworm’s lifetime of omnivorous reading, and there’s something here to answer virtually any roving curiosity. For instance, one of the days I re-read one of these volumes I’d earlier re-read Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, about the mania of the Salem Witch Trials, and I came across Lowell’s great piece on witchcraft, in which at one point he muses on the urge everybody feels to give in to the same kind of abandon the girls in Salem felt:

Who has never felt an almost irresistible temptation, and seemingly not self-originated, to let himself go? To let his mind gallop and kick and curvet and roll like a horse turned loose? In short, as we Yankees say, “to speak out in meeting?” Who never had it suggested to him by the fiend to break in at a funeral with a real character of the deceased, instead of that Mrs. Grundyfied view of him which the clergyman is so painfully elaborating in his prayer? Remove the pendulum of conventional routine, and the mental machinery runs on with a whir that gives a delightful excitement to the sluggish temperaments, and is, perhaps, the natural relief of the highly nervous organizations.

jrl2And of course the highlights of these collections reliably happen when Lowell is writing about the handful of authors he dearly, personally loves. On the very shortest of short lists of those authors was Dante, and the Dante essay here is superbly conversational and immediate:

Whatever subsidiary interpretations the poem is capable of, its great and primary value is as the autobiography of a human soul, of yours and mine, it may be, as well as Dante’s. In that lie its profound meaning and its permanent force. That an exile, a proud man forced to be dependent, should have found some consolation in brooding over the justice of God, weighed in such different scales from those of man, in contrasting the outward prosperity of the sinner with the awful spiritual ruin within, is not wonderful, nay, we can conceive of his sometimes finding the wrath of God sweeter than his mercy. But it is wonderful that out of the very wreck of his own life he should have built this three-arched bridge, still firm against the wash and wear of ages …

And reading these books during the warmest November in recorded Boston history, I jrl3couldn’t help but detect the light lilt of irony in Lowell’s wonderful essay “A Good Word for Winter”:

I think the old fellow has hitherto had scant justice done him in the main. We make him the symbol of old age and death, and we think we have settled the matter. As if old age were never kindly as well as frosty; as if it had no reverend graces of its own as good in their way as the noisy impertinence of childhood, the elbowing self-conceit of youth, or the pompous mediocrity of middle life! As if there were anything discreditable in death, or nobody had ever longed for it!

James Russel Lowell is well and truly out of print – no annotated Penguin Classic of The Biglow Papers, no two-volume Library of America set (containing these very same literary essays) commemorating a man who did so much to lend legitimacy to the American lucy reads jrlrhetorical stance on the world stage (I don’t at the moment remember how many volumes Kurt Vonnegut has). You can find him on the mighty Project Gutenberg, for convenient reading everywhere you go, but if you want to curl up with Lowell on the printed page, you’ve got to haunt a place like the Brattle Bookshop and hope to find a set like this one. It seems like shabby treatment to me, but I’m probably not impartial at this point.